I well remember 45 years ago, walking up Yonge Street in Toronto on a hot summer afternoon, and stopping at one of those book discount stores that sell remainders and the like. I rummaged through the tray out on the sidewalk and picked out a Harper Paperback for a buck-fifty. I was intrigued by the picture of skeletons on the cover and the title, Genesis and Geology, by one Charles Gillespie.
I guess we have all had the experience of starting into an unknown book almost by chance and suddenly finding that it is absolutely fascinating and that it stays with you for a long time, if not forever. That is how I still feel about Genesis and Geology. It was my introduction to geology and paleontology and the squabbles with religion in the first part of the 19th century and I still work on the topic and area!
I felt the same way a week or two back, when almost equally by chance I picked up a book with a much less appealing title, Authority, Liberty and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe, by one Otto Mayr—a nephew incidentally of the great evolutionist Ernst Mayr. I am still not quite sure why I bought the book—from ABE, the great on-line source of second-hand books—but there it was and having looked guiltily at it for a few weeks I picked it up and started to read. As with Genesis and Geology I was hooked at once and I am still buzzing.
Basically the author looks at the metaphor of the clock—as applied to the physical world—starting in the Middle Ages and going forward to the end of the 18th century. He shows how important a metaphor it was as the world picture was mechanized, but argues also that in the 18th century things start to come apart a bit. The metaphor continues to hold sway on the Continent but in Britain it is increasingly replaced by the metaphor of a feedback mechanism, for instance the steam engine governor, and the author suggests that this reflects a difference in political systems between the Continent and Britain.
On the Continent one continues with a fixed system with everything in place and essentially no freedom. Everything ticks along without much change or chance for innovation. In Britain to the contrary, there was the growth of a constitutional government and increasing enthusiasm for a liberalism that stressed free choice, especially in areas like trade. Mayr argues that essentially liberalism is feedback translated to society, giving in some sense a dimension of freedom not possessed on the Continent.
I found all of this fascinating and prima facie reasonable; but it is not really my field so to check things out I went online—as one can these days—to JSTOR to look at some of the reviews of the book (it was published in 1986). Boy did I get a surprise. To be fair, general opinion is that it isn’t a bad book at all, but the reviews told a lot more about the reviewers than the book! One by a very eminent historian of 18th-century life, particularly medicine, set the tone along the lines of: “Good effort, but really doesn’t tell enough about the eighteenth century. Could do better.”
Another by a woman picked on one passage where the author is trying to show that not everyone in the Scientific Revolution was that keen on clocks. He quoted Shakespeare.
What? I love, I sue, I seek a wife!
A woman that is like a German clock,
Still a-repairing, ever out of frame,
And never going aright, being a watch,
But being watched that it may still go right!
(Love’s Labor’s Lost)
Why didn’t the author stop right there and change course and write a different book, one about the sexism of the time and so on and so forth.
And then the reviews that moaned and moaned again about the fact that the author had not mentioned their books and given them prominent treatment. I kid you not! As you can imagine, given that the book spans 500 years, there were a fair number along that line.
It was a salutary experience reading those reviews. I myself review a fair number of books and I am sure I am guilty of many if not all of those sins. Well, perhaps not the feminism one, assuming that it is a sin to think that everyone should write about one’s own particular obsession. (I find religious people are often given to this kind of practice, thinking that not talking about their issues is somehow fundamentally immoral.)
I don’t know how much I or others will ever change. But I can tell you one thing. It will be a long time before I write a review that complains that the author has not mentioned one of my books. I wonder if reviewers realize just how silly and petty they seem when they do that. Even if it is true that your book should have been mentioned.